CHESHIRE — A Connecticut high school winter sports season is officially a go.
While games will start a week later than expected and there will be no state tournaments and some teams won’t compete at all, a modified winter season was approved Thursday by the CIAC Board of Control for basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics and boys swimming.
Practices can start as early as next Tuesday, January 19. That’s the start date the CIAC had been eyeing since suspending the winter season in mid-November.
Games can start as early as February 8. That’s a one-week delay on the projected start of February 1.
The postseason, slated for March 15-28, will be staged by individual conferences. It replaces the traditional state tournaments the CIAC had hoped to run March 8-21.
There is a casualty in the new dateline for winter, and that’s football. The alternative season that had been set up when the CIAC canceled football in the fall, expected to run February 22 through mid-April, has been eliminated.
With the winter season now extending through March 28 and the spring season slated to start March 29, CIAC Excecutive Director Glenn Lungarini said Thursday, the window for the alternative season grew too small.
Another factor: Sports deemed high risk for the spread of COVID-19 have been postponed through March. That high-risk group includes football as well as wrestling.
Wrestling, already postponed for winter, was holding out hope for the alternative season. Instead, at this point, like football, it will miss out on the 2020-2021 school year entirely.
Like the other high-risk winter sports of competitive dance and competitive cheerleading, wrestling can hold conditioning and non-contact skill practices in cohorts of no more than four.
There was better news for indoor track. While the CIAC is abiding by the state’s recommendation that the large multi-teams meets that are the staple of indoor track not be held at this time, teams can start practicing next Tuesday. The CIAC will revisit the possibility of smaller indoor and outdoor meets in March.
Ultimately, the decision on if and when to play winter sports resides with individual school districts. The CIAC’s winter plan remains “fluid” based on COVID-19 data. The season could be shut down at any time if the state’s health situation worsens.
Heading in, the winter plan calls for a 12-game regular season for basketball, hockey, gymnastics and boys swimming. As recommended by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, athletes in basketball, hockey and gymnastics will compete wearing masks.
The CIAC is confident it will be able to pull off a modified season in the winter just as it did in the fall.
“If we weren’t confident we can get it done, we wouldn’t be moving forward with it,” Lungarini said. “Not only are we confident that we can get it done, but the guidance from DPH shows confidence that we can get it done.
“The support of the Sports Medicine Committee shows confidence that we can get it done,” the executie director continued. “And the flexibility that we provide allows districts to move forward at a pace that is appropriate for them and meets the needs of the individual districts.”
The CIAC regards high school sports as an adjunct to education. Starting winter practices on January 19 coincides with the return to in-person learning for most school districts that had gone all-remote before the holidays.
Pushing the start of contests to no earlier than Febraury 8 not only gives schools extra time to prepare for sports, it gives winter athletes, separated from their teams since mid-November, an extra week of conditioning.
On the back end, the state tournaments were cancelled because CIAC postseason events require a “hard” stop date to the regular season. That would potentially limit the number of games teams get to play. It’s not a given that all schools will start playing on February 8 or complete a 12-game schedule without a hitch.
“We have to anticipate there’s going to be teams that are going to be required to quarantine,” Lungarini said. “We are still playing in a pandemic, so we have to anticipate there will be disruptions in the schedule through the winter season.
“We don’t want state tournaments to be a limiting factor in kids being able to play games,” he added. “We want to maximize their opportunity to play.”
The winter season got the green light Thursday even with the state firmly in the grip of the second wave of the coronavirus.
COVID-19 numbers from earlier this week were the worst the state has seen since the pandemic first hit in the spring. Tuesday’s test positivity rate was 10.72 percent. While the rate dropped to 6.2 Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 deaths reported that day was 87, the highest in a single day since mid-May.
Thursday’s numbers were better. Test positivity fell to 4.37, 37 people died and hospitalizations dropped by 30 to 1,118.
Other promising data shows COVID-19 transmission in school settings has been low. Last week, the CIAC released numbers stating that of the COVID-19 cases reported among Connecticut student-athletes in the fall, only seven were contact-traced by local health departments to sporting events, with a transmission rate of 0.021 percent.
It’s that experience in the fall, when a season for all sports except for football was staged from October 1 through November 14, that has CIAC hopes high for the winter.
“Yes, we had adjustments to schedules; yes we had cancellations to events, but we were very successful in the fall of engaging over 28,000 athletes in a safe manner, and we will be successful in the winter of engaging our kids in the sports that we’re able to,” Lungarini said.
When it comes to the “postseason experience,” the CIAC is allowing leagues to expand what they did in the fall. Playoffs in that season were limited to divisions within the conferences. Full league tournaments will be allowed in the winter.
The regular-season picture, though, will remain the same. As in the fall, for the sake of limiting travel and exposure, teams will play strictly within divisions of 6-8 teams.
The CIAC recommends spectators not be allowed into events, though it is up to individual districts to set their own policies. Schools in the Record-Journal coverage area restricted the number of spectators in the fall, usually limiting it to parents and, on Senior Nights, immediate family.
As the winter season unfolds, the CIAC will stay focused on COVID-19 case numbers in the state. Data collection on the virus has improved since the fall, Lungarini said, and while there aren’t specific benchmarks that will make or break the winter season, the CIAC will pay close attention to where school-related infections are happening and in what groups.
“If the COVID environment creates a scenario that we feel is unsafe, we will shut down,” Lungarini said. “Right now, we have very little data that would show transmissions are happening as a result of in-person instruction or interscholastic athletics. We will continue to keep a close eye on that and track the progress of our schools.”
Looking beyond the winter, the CIAC remains commited to staging a full spring campaign, complete with state tournaments, given that the entire season was cancelled in 2020.
Some thought had been given to moving football and wrestling to spring, but that encountered roadblocks.
For one, the National Federation of State High School Associations recently issued new guidance on spring football. If states play football this spring, the NFHS ruled, it will reduce the number of games they can play in the fall due to concusssion and contact concerns.
Athletes would also have to choose between sports. A CIAC survery showed 38 percent of Connecticut high school football players and 31 percent of wrestlers also play a spring sport. That overlap could put teams in a pinch, Lungarini noted, especially at smaller schools.
The CIAC does not allow athletes to play more than one sport in the same season.
With the alternative season going by the boards Thursday, football and wrestling have run out of options.
“We certainly understand and empathize that those athletes who would have been able to have had some competition in that alternative season will not be able to have that competition,” Lungarini said.